‘Lohengrin’ gives opera rock ’n’ roll intensity

“Lohengrin,” Richard Wagner’s ultra-romantic 1850 work, has returned to the War Memorial Opera House with a production that illustrates the very idea of “grand opera.”

At Saturday’s premiere, an outstanding cast, Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra and Ian Robertson’s chorus filled the big hall with music of the kind of intensity usually experienced at rock concerts.

The beautiful music — deep, broad and quadraphonic — poured from the stage and orchestra pit with mighty impact; brass fanfares came at the audience from seemingly everywhere.

After a somewhat wan prelude, Luisotti pulled together a consistent, solid orchestral performance. Both lyrical and fervent, it underscored and supported soloists, and it produced the surging, forward motion not often heard since Luisotti’s 2005 local debut with “La Forza del Destino.”

The music needed to work to compensate for weak elements in the new-to-San Francisco production, co-produced by Geneva and Houston opera companies.

Oddly, and to little effect, director Daniel Slater moved the story from 10th-century Antwerp, Belgium, to 20th-century Eastern Europe because, he says in program notes, “The essential military and political contexts of the [1956 Hungarian Revolution] and ‘Lohengrin’ are invitingly similar.”

But the setting could be anywhere, really — even in ancient China, where the hero of “Turandot” also will not reveal his name, like Lohengrin.

To avoid the opera’s original setting, armor and all, Slater dressed the cast, especially the women in the chorus, in frumpy 1950s schlock.

The only memorable part of the generic set design (by Robert Innes Hopkins) was the wedding chamber, which looked like a dollhouse. Slater posed Lohengrin and Elsa, his bride, like Ken and Barbie.

Yet against the sweep of the music and excellent vocal performances, the staging and direction didn’t matter.

As Lohengrin, the mysterious knight arriving on a swan-drawn boat, tenor Brandon Jovanovich superbly combined the role’s required lyrical and heroic sound; it didn’t hurt that he is tall, athletic and handsome.

In her San Francisco debut, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund made a lovely Elsa, with a radiant voice and assured stage presence. German singers Petra Lang, as the pagan witch Ortrud, and Gerd Grochowski as her husband, Telramund, were effective as the villains.

Kristinn Sigmundsson, San Francisco’s favorite Icelandic giant bass, was ideal as King Heinrich. Brian Mulligan was the stentorian Herald.

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